Nearly half a century ago, California made a deal with its students: if they took tough courses in high school and did well, the state would guarantee them a spot at one its publicly supported colleges the University of California or California State University. But now Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a new deal - one that breaks that promise for tens of thousands of qualified students.
Tamryn Miller should have had no trouble getting into the University of California at Santa Cruz. The Burlingame High School senior has a 3.8 grade point average all in honors and Advanced Placement classes. She does volunteer work, plays soccer and just received an academic excellence certificate signed by President Bush. So the rejection letter took her by surprise.
"Basically I broke down," she said. "I lost it, because that was my top choice school and I didn't really find myself at home at any other school."
Sitting in the office of her high school counselor, two long braids draped over her shoulders, Tamryn was more angry than upset. She had done everything she was supposed to.
"I went beyond the eligibility and they said this is what you have to do to get into a UC and this is what they told us when I was a freshman and then when I'm applying and not getting accepted, it's just like, where did that go?" she asked "What happened to that promise that you did make me like four years ago?"
That promise was broken because of a political budget deal recently announced between California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the leaders of the University of California and Cal State University. The state is facing a $12 billion budget shortfall and funding public education is a large part of the budget.
Under the deal, the universities agreed to raise student fees for the third time in two years. More controversially, they agreed to cut enrollment by 28,000 students. In return, the governor pledged to restore funds and allow enrollment to rise starting in one year.
However, as U.C. Berkeley historian John Douglass observes, that's no consolation for students now unexpectedly directed to community colleges instead of four-year universities. "This is really the first time this social contract has been broken," he said. "What's unusual about this is it's the first time a governor has proposed that that the segments [of the state university system] not accept all UC eligible students."
A committee of the UC Board of Regents was initially split on whether to go along with the governor's proposal. In the end, however, the full board approved the deal.
A day earlier, the Cal State trustees did the same.
With less than two weeks to go before final exams, several hundred Cal State students walked out of class to protest the governor's deal.
Carrying a sign reading "No Deal," freshman Breaunna Lijon said she and many of her classmates already work in order to pay for school and the additional tuition hike in the governor's agreement threatens to force them to drop out.
"What do we have left if we don't have an education?" she asked. "If we can't afford to go to school, then what else are we supposed to do?"
Standing nearby, senior Ray Grangoff is wearing a button with a picture of a wolf in sheep's clothing, which he says represents the deal. He says by cutting enrollment and raising tuition, the nation's most diverse state threatens to lose that representation in its public colleges and universities.
"I'm graduating this year and I know a lot of the people I'm going to be graduating with are going to be doing some great things and they represent a lot of different talents and different skills and different backgrounds," he said. "And if this deal goes through, we're not going to get such a diverse group of students."
The students have friends in high places who can thwart the deal. State Assembly speaker Fabian Nunez, a Democrat, has vowed to fight for higher education.
"There are some areas where it's very difficult to compromise," the speaker said. "We're drawing the line and making it very clear we're not going to leave students behind. And I think that's a message the governor needs to consider."
The governor and the legislature will be considering it over the next week or so, as lawmakers debate the state budget proposal and thousands of California high school students, like Tamryn Miller, will be watching.
After learning the hard way that she can't take anything for granted, Tamryn applied the same effort she brought to her honors classes and appealed her rejection from U.C. Santa Cruz. Next fall, she'll start her freshman term there.